Elisabeth von Bergh-s'Heerenberg

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The grave slab Elisabeth von Berghs in Essen Minster

Elisabeth van Bergh-s'Heerenberg , often referred to as Elisabeth von Bergh or Elisabeth von Berg , (* 1581 at Huis Bergh Castle in 's-Heerenberg , Netherlands ; † January 12, 1614 in Essen ) was the abbess of the Essen monastery from 1605 until 1614 as well as abbess in the monasteries Freckenhorst (since 1605) and Nottuln (since 1613).

The abbess, who is remembered by a grave slab in Essen Minster today , was the spearhead of the Catholic Counter-Reformation in Essen. Unhappy in her office, Elisabeth was completely dependent on her councilors and tragically in love with a Protestant childhood friend. She passed away very suddenly at the age of only 33.

Essen Abbey at the beginning of the 17th century

Essen was the seat of an imperial duchess, but at the beginning of the 17th century the city was a Westphalian provincial town that had bypassed the spirit of the Renaissance . Essen Abbey was now far removed from the splendor of its past under the Ottonian abbesses Mathilde , Sophia and Theophanu . The proximity to the ruling houses no longer existed, the influence of the monastery was limited to its possessions. The city of Essen, which saw itself as a free imperial city, had escaped the control of the monastery since the 13th century, and in 1563 the city council had decided to introduce Protestantism . Even the noble canons tended to Protestant ideas or even professed them. In 1605, when Elisabeth was elected, the women's chapter consisted of only three women: Felicitas von Eberstein, who professed the Reformed faith, and the Lutheran sisters Claudia and Maria Catharina von Manderscheid-Virneburg. Only the canons of the monastery were Catholic, but they made up the majority of the abbess election. The monastery itself had been subject to the influence of the surrounding principalities and church circles for centuries, especially that of the Archdiocese of Cologne . Although the free choice of the abbess from among the community was one of the founding privileges of the monastery, the elections were seldom actually unaffected. It was not the woman most suitable for the office, which corresponded to the ideal of spiritual foundations , that was chosen , but the woman from whom the influencing group expected the protection of their interests. In this situation, Margarethe Elisabeth von Manderscheid-Blankenheim-Gerolstein, abbess of the monasteries of Schwarzrheindorf , Gerresheim and Freckenhorst and princess abbess of Essen, died on November 27, 1604 .

Elisabeth von Bergh's youth

Elisabeth von Bergh was born in 1581 as a member of the family of the Counts von dem Berg . Her parents were Count Wilhelm IV of Bergh 's-Heerenberg (1537–1586, ⚭ 1556) and Maria von Nassau (1539–1599), the sister of Prince Wilhelm of Orange-Nassau . Elisabeth was one of the couple's 17 children, three of their brothers and four of their sisters reached adulthood. The family was wealthy in Gelderland , the s'Heerenberg Castle is located near Montferland . Elisabeth's father Wilhelm von Bergh had an eventful life, as he had fought for both the Habsburgs and the States General, and at times he had to leave his country. He died in 1586. Elisabeth was brought up Protestant at first, but she supposedly converted as a child after attending a Catholic mass, possibly only after her mother's death in 1599, but probably before 1601. Comments in her letters indicate that Elisabeth parts spent her childhood at Culemborg Castle and Vianen Castle and was very happy there. It was there that she met Floris II von Pallandt (1577–1639), Count of Culemborg, who was born in 1577 and whom she fell in love with.

Floris, son of an influential companion of William of Orange, did not marry Elisabeth in 1601, but her older sister Catharina. This wedding hurt Elizabeth very much. Perhaps that was why Floris had a guilty conscience, which he tried to calm down by later encouraging Elisabeth.

The election to the abbess

As early as April 1604, Elisabeth's brother Hermann tried to find a preamble for Elisabeth at Essen Abbey, but unsuccessfully. According to a memo written during the later election negotiations, the von Bergh-s'Heerenberg family were not noble enough for the Essen monastery. It was feared that the canonesses who decided to accept applicants would “want to rebuke Gravin vonn dem Bergh for their genealogy.” Hermann received a very politely worded rejection.

Elisabeth was then first elected on January 15, 1605 in Freckenhorst. After the death of Elisabeth von Manderscheid-Blankenheim-Gerolstein, the chapter first had the eleven-year-old daughter Elisabeth of the Calvinist Count Simon VI. Elected by Lippe , but the higher diocese of Munster prevented the confirmation and ordered new elections, whereby Elisabeth von Bergh "was particularly recommended by her relatives as a Catholic and gnugsamb qualified for it". The chapter should draw attention to the possible benevolence of the Bergh and Nassau houses. The pullers in the background were the Count of East Friesland and Rietberg, who had converted to Catholicism, the influential Jesuit Jakob Ryswick, who had prepared the Count of East Friesland for his conversion, and his college friend Arnold von Bucholz, spiritual advisor to the Prince-Bishop of Münster. In fact, Elisabeth was then also elected; in her surrender on January 31, 1605, she promised to accept only Catholic canons and canons in Freckenhorst. In 1609 she had dug in the Thiatildiskapelle in order to find the Holy Cross. The bones of the first abbess Thiatildis were discovered. Elisabeth had them buried. As a result, she revived the veneration of the first abbess in Freckenhorst, who had been forgotten in the course of the Reformation.

The election was similar in Essen. Shortly after the death of Elisabeth von Manderscheid-Blankenheim-Gerolstein, a letter from the papal nuncio arrived in Cologne, in which he demanded an election according to the regulations of the Council of Trent . In two further letters, the nuncio ordered the canons to elect only one abbess who would make the creed established at the council. If the canons should not obey this instruction, the nuncio threatened deposition, deprivation of benefices and excommunication . At the same time, the nuncio proposed a Countess von Isenburg. On the part of the patron and patron of the monastery, the Duke of Kleve, the election of the Abbess of Elten, Agnes of Limburg-Stirum , was suggested, who was initially supported by the Cologne ambassador. The Archbishop of Cologne initially stood up for one of the three canonesses, who refused to make the Catholic creed and was not supported by her own relatives either. Elisabeth von Bergh's proposal came quite late; it was proposed by a brother-in-law of the reformed Essen provost, who also had close contacts with the Bergh and Culemborg houses. Elisabeth was also recommended in letters from Floris II of Culemborg, Prince Moritz of Orange-Nassau and other Reformed nobles, and the Archbishop of Cologne and the papal nuncio also advocated her. For the non-Catholic canons, Elisabeth was eligible for election on the basis of the recommendations of the Reformed aristocrats, especially since they had promised to ensure that their rights and income would be protected. For the future, however, the promises that Elisabeth had to make to the Cologne ambassador before her election, namely the creation of a Catholic majority in the chapter, and the pressure exerted on the canons by the Cologne ambassadors, were decisive. The canons tried to have their rights confirmed by the Duke of Kleve or by Elisabeth herself before the installation of Elisabeth, but these attempts were thwarted by the fact that the postulation was simply brought forward and Elisabeth was allowed to arrive so shortly before the installation that for previous conversations there was no time.


Elisabeth von Bergh was not familiar with the customs and rules of her pens and was therefore dependent in all matters on her councilors, who wanted to achieve their own counter-Reformation goals. Her term of office was therefore marked by disputes with the chapter. Contrary to the assumption made by the Counter-Reformation forces when they were elected, it was not enough to install a Catholic abbess in Essen; important rights, such as the granting of benefices and the admission of new canonesses, lay with the ladies' chapter. Conflicts arose quickly. The Countesses Anna and Emilie von Wied Präbenden had already been promised in Essen in 1603, but Elisabeth refused to consent to the two Protestants being accepted. Conversely, Elisabeth accepted the first Catholic canoness Johanna Helena von Staufen, against every rule, in 1608 : Since the provostess refused to assign Johanna Helena a preamble, Elisabeth withdrew some prebendess from the provost and assigned them to her candidate. This broke the promise not to reduce the income of the canonesses, and she had also significantly interfered with the provostess' traditional rights. As a result, Elisabeth also accepted women who, like herself, did not have the necessary number of noble ancestors as long as the applicants were only Catholic. As early as June 1605, Moritz von Oranien-Nassau asked the abbess (behind whose actions he suspected Jesuits ) not to interfere with the rights of the canonesses - a little later also the Counts of Bentheim and Lippe. Even Floris von Culemborg's request was in vain. In 1609 Elisabeth even initiated a heresy trial against the Protestant provostess before the vicar general in Cologne, who then turned to the Margrave of Brandenburg and the Count Palatine of Neuburg as patrons of the monastery, seeking help . Even their writing was ineffective. After all, they had to come to Essen themselves in January 1611 to at least settle the economic disputes between the abbess and the chapter. The main problem, namely the dispute over the admission of Protestant canonesses, remained unsolved. In 1611 Count Johann von Nassau asked for two daughters to be accepted, but Elisabeth refused them, with the support of the Catholic canons Johanna Helena von Staufen and Maria Clara von Spaur as well as from Cologne. Although the count, insulted by the rejection, turned on the Wetterau Reichsgrafenkollegium and the matter was even discussed at the Reichstag in 1613 , his efforts remained unsuccessful. When, after the death of Elisabeth von Bergh in 1614, the now predominantly Catholic women's chapter refused to accept Protestant women, the Count gave up his efforts to accept his two daughters.

It is doubtful whether Elisabeth von Bergh made her disputed decisions herself. In the Rijksarchief in Arnhem there are 14 letters she wrote by hand from the years 1610 to 1614, which she wrote to her childhood friend Floris von Culemborg. Floris, a close confidante of the Captain General of the United Netherlands, was a Protestant and had studied law in Leiden. In the letters it becomes clear that Elisabeth did not feel at home in Essen, Essen was a “melancolis place”, Westphalia called her “the plump country”. She missed the courtly life and the nice gentlemen. Floris even gave his life for her when he accompanied her to Essen and Freckenhorst. She had already sent him a handkerchief in one of the first letters - an erotic gesture, a pledge of love . In these letters Elisabeth also approached Protestantism religiously. With the reply letters that were not received (Elisabeth probably burned them, as she also asked Floris to burn her letters), Floris also sent gifts. Finally, Elisabeth and Floris agreed to see Maria Candlemas again in 1614. This reunion never happened because Elisabeth was on January 12, 1614, while recovering from chickenpox, suddenly died at night, just 33 years old.

The circumstances of her death are dubious, it seems possible that the death was not due to natural causes. Elisabeth was afraid of being poisoned; In her letter to Floris dated December 10, 1613, she wrote to Floris: “Ych thank el for die gedechtenise […] and as se heb, soe wilt ych el danck dar foer six; vnd yst, the ul vns nu want to send, el latt wick doe pitsiren, then ych have folt fiande yn the hock special orsack, different village ych se not eat. "

Translation: “I thank EG (Your Grace) for the gifts [...] and when I have them, I want to thank EG for them; and let what you want to send us now, please seal it tightly, because I have many enemies at court for no reason, otherwise I am not allowed to eat it. "

The chapter chose the convinced Catholic canon Maria Clara von Spaur, Pflaum and Vallier as her successor .

The grave in Essen Minster

Elisabeth was laid out in Essen until Floris arrived and finally buried in Essen Minster. The 230 × 127 cm grave slab made of black marble , which her brother probably had made in Antwerp , is today on the north wall of the east aisle bay. It shows Elisabeth in the clothes of a canoness, her head resting on a pillow. Above her head is the coat of arms of the von Bergh family, held by two genii depicted with inverted torches, on the left and on the right that of sixteen noble families from which they had ancestors: Bergh, Moers, Cleve, Baieren, Veldentz, Egmont, Culenborch, Baentheim , Nassauw, Lowe, Hessen, Catzenelnboghen, Stolbergh, Mansfeld, Konigstein and March. The circumferential inscription on the plate reads: Int Jaer after the birth of Christ 1614 on January 15, the Hochwirdich Hoch and Wolgeborne Furstin and Fraw Fraw Elisabeth of the Kayserlichen Freyweltliche Stift Essen, also to Freckenhorst and Nottuln Abdissin geporne Gravinne to the Bergh in Gott fell asleep whose soul the almighty one is gracious. The grave was opened during excavations in Essen Minster in 1952; in addition to the remains of the skeleton, a lead plate with the inscription engraved in Antiqua was found in the princess's lead coffin : Dis is the Hoichwvrdig and wolgeporne Furstin and Fray Fraw Elisabet of the Kay Serliche Freiweltlichen Stift Essen also zv Freckenhorst vnd ​​Nottelen Abtessin geporne Countess zv dem Berge freygrafin zu Boxmehr, Biland, Heydel, Hapswisch vnd Spalbech, also to Stefenswehrt Bannergräfin des Fvrstendombs gelre und Grafschaft zvtphen which in 1605 has been sent to Es sen for a mere priest New year reigned praiseworthy and finally passed away in God on the twelfth of January, in the morning at 4 o'clock in the year 1614. After the excavations were completed, the abbess's remains were reburied with a new document in the floor of the cathedral church in front of the grave slab.


  • Ute Küppers-Braun: women of the high nobility in the imperial-free-worldly ladies' monastery Essen (1605-1803) . Aschendorffsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Münster 1997, ISBN 3-402-06247-X .
  • Ute Küppers-Braun: Power in women's hands - 1000 years of rule by noble women in Essen . Klartext Verlag, Essen 2002, ISBN 3-89861-106-X .
  • Ludwig Potthoff: How Elisabeth von Berghe was elected Abbess of Essen . In: Münster am Hellweg 1952, 118–121


  1. ^ RAG: Cul 460, quoted from Küppers-Braun, Frauen, p. 130

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This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on January 24, 2007 .